What stopped Stoppard?

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

Two programmes this week presented two radically different world views, or rather ways of life. Aditya Chakrabortty’s series for Radio 4, Decoding the News, looked at five words or phrases which have come to characterise how politics, finance and business operate in the UK. We entered a world of policy wonks and pundits, of words used not to enlighten or explain but to calculate and confuse. A world in which those who tell stories get all the attention, while those who insist on sticking to the facts are ignored or on occasion ridiculed. It made for chilling listening as, for instance, Chakrabortty deconstructed the meaning of that slippery term, ‘shareholder value’.

Once upon a time, he suggested, before the 1980s, the annual reports of companies were interested in the product being made and the market share of that product; rarely was there any discussion of share price and nothing at all was said about shareholder value. That all changed as the share price of the company became the only measure by which its success was judged. Chief executives were rewarded for increasing the share price, even if this meant cutting costs that ultimately threatened the success of the product. But as one of Chakrabortty’s guest experts explained, we are all to blame, not just the companies themselves. After all, ‘have you ever fed back to the trustees [of your pension scheme] to demand that they invest in companies who are not pursuing shareholder value?’

Meanwhile on the World Service Peter Curran travelled north beyond the Arctic Circle to the small fishing town of Vadso on the northern cape of Norway. In Spirit of the Midnight Sun he talked to the Sami who live in that most inhospitable terrain, great slabs of rock, a hostile sea, freezing temperatures and, for much of the winter, cloaked in darkness. For them, life is determined by natural forces, and their sacred sites are very much part of the landscape. ‘When we die we don’t travel anywhere, we just move to a parallel dimension below us, the realm of the dead,’ Curran was told. ‘Wherever you walk, you have a spiritual counterpart below you, connected to your feet.’

As it happens, I was in Vadso a couple of weeks ago, or rather passed by at just past midnight, weirdly under a blazing sun. Two huge signs told the story of the town, ‘Eternal Light’ on one, ‘Eternal Night’ on the other. Above the town, glistening in the ethereal light, was the huge white dome of the American listening station, a spectral reminder that the Sami’s regard for nature is threatened by ‘progress’ and the proximity of the Russian border just across the mountain.

How do they get through those long, dark winters when there is only two hours of light each day? ‘When it’s dark all day and night, people have to switch on the light inside themselves to get themselves, their friends and family through the darkness. It’s a spiritual survival technique.’

Two anniversaries also this week. Radio 4 Extra celebrated the 80th birthday of the playwright Tom Stoppard with another airing of his 1967 play for radio Albert’s Bridge, in the original version which starred John Hurt and that great wireless voice Haydn Jones. It’s such a clever conceit, to imagine the painters stuck up on the frets and girders of the great iron bridge across the Firth of Forth (renamed the Clufton in Stoppard’s fictional world). What would it be like to spend all your working life doing nothing else but painting a bridge, in a continuous circuit, never ending or beginning, ‘crawling between heaven and earth on a cantilevered span, cat’s cradled in the sky’? Albert, the philosophy student turned painter, tries to explain in a play that lingers long in the mind, begging the question: why hasn’t Stoppard written for radio for so long?

Over on Radio Five Live, a two-hour celebration marked 60 years of Test Match Special, with listeners telling us why and how they had become such determined fans. TMS is a bit of an acquired taste, that bluff, schoolboyish humour, the delight in abstruse technical detail, the endlessly repeating jokes about cakes, and pigeons, and leg before (or is it behind) wicket. It’s also a bit of an indictment of the game itself that cricket fans, to keep themselves entertained, often used to take their transistor radios into the grounds to listen to the commentary on radio while the match itself was going on in front of them. But you have to admire the sheer genius of a programme that can bewitch a school full of boys who have no sight, as Peter White explained. He’s been hooked on TMS since he was nine, no doubt enthralled by such brilliant off-the-cuff reportage as this gem from a Trent Bridge match against the West Indies: ‘Bedser heaves his shoulders, swings his arms back behind him until they meet, rolls his shoulder again, and comes pounding ever optimistically in from the Radcliffe Road end. Bowls to Weekes. And Weekes throws his bat at the ball, wide outside his off stump. A most impudent stroke.’

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